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Volunteer fire departments that the U.S. relies on are stretched dangerously thin

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Across most of the country, if your house catches on fire, the first responders will likely be volunteers. About two-thirds of U.S. fire departments are all volunteer. Many of those departments were stretched thin before the pandemic, and now they're under even more pressure. Frank Morris of Member Station KCUR reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: More than 250 square miles of freshly scorched earth stretch out in three directions from tiny Paradise, Kan. In December, winds gusting up to 100 miles an hour pushed a wall of flames headlong across the rolling pasture here, torching farms and killing thousands of animals. Thick smoke, ash and dust blocked out the sun. Volunteer Fire Chief Quentin Maupin thought he'd never see his kids again when the raging blaze suddenly swept across his firetruck.

QUENTIN MAUPIN: That wall of fire was - I don't know - probably 60, 80 feet high - and both hands on the steering wheel, just holding on, thinking, this is probably it because you could hear the plastic melting and cracking. The stickers, the reflectors, the plastic flashing lights - it melted all that stuff on that truck.

MORRIS: Maupin was alone in the 18,000-pound pumper truck because, like many rural fire departments, his is chronically short-staffed.

MAUPIN: It's tough. You know, it's rural Kansas, and there just isn't that many people out here anymore. And young people - that's the other thing. Normally, our policy is you need two people on a truck. But that day, there wasn't anybody here, and I knew we just got to get a truck out there right now.

MORRIS: Just keeping equipment running can be another challenge. A few miles away in the Natoma Volunteer Fire Station, District Chief Keith Koelling has a building full of clean but battered and aging red firetrucks.

KEITH KOELLING: This is a '96. That over there is a 2002. This is a '96, our pumper.

MORRIS: Koelling and his resourceful crew fix them as best they can, but just finding parts for these old trucks can be tough.

KOELLING: I got a whole bunch of trucks that need to be traded out, and I can't do it because I don't have the funding.

MORRIS: And the trucks aren't the only thing aging here. The National Volunteer Fire Council says that in small-town volunteer fire departments, more than a third of the firefighters are over 50. Koelling is 62, and he says last month's hellish wildfire pushed him to the brink.

KOELLING: I went right at 40 hours straight. Went to sleep for about four hours, and then I was back up and went for another 15. Come to find out I had COVID at the same time. I hit a brick wall. I mean, I just had to quit. I just shut down. I'm too old for that.

MORRIS: Volunteer firefighters aren't just getting older. They're also getting scarce. The National Volunteer Fire Council's most recent count shows a 17% drop in the number of volunteer firefighters since 1984. But calls for service have more than tripled in that time.

Eric Bernard directs volunteer fire and rescue operations in Montgomery County, Md., where some 1,500 volunteers work alongside more than a thousand career firefighters and paramedics.

ERIC BERNARD: It used to be pretty simple. If you had a crime going on, you call the police. If there was fire, you call the fire department. But fire department now does everything. We call it all hazards - so hazardous materials to electrical, water issues, a tree on a house.

MORRIS: A hazard for firefighters is COVID-19. Bernard says that Rockville volunteer deputy fire chief Scott Emmons helped evacuate injured police officers from the U.S. Capitol on January 6 last year. A couple of weeks later, he tested positive for COVID, and then he died.

BERNARD: We lost a 30-year active chief officer who was 48 years old that served at the Capitol. That was devastating. We had to put on a departmental funeral to say goodbye to a 48-year-old. That's what COVID did to us.

MORRIS: The National Volunteer Fire Council says the COVID has killed about 100 volunteer firefighters. Many contracted the disease on calls. The pandemic's also hitting volunteer fire department budgets. Fire Chief Jennifer Williams in rural Chickasaw County, Miss., says COVID has scrambled the department's revenue stream.

JENNIFER WILLIAMS: Typical volunteer fundraising activities - you know, you sell plates or you have a luncheon. Well, you really can't do that with COVID. People don't want to gather.

MORRIS: That fundraising isn't for extra. Some departments rely on it to buy essentials like hydraulic extraction tools to pry open wrecked vehicles to rescue victims. Williams says the closest department with the so-called jaws of life is a good 15 minutes away.

WILLIAMS: And if you're trapped in a car, you don't have 15 to 20 minutes. We don't have extrication tools. We can't afford extrication tools. A set is about $18,000. We don't have $18,000 to spend.

MORRIS: Williams is having trouble just replacing worn-out fire hoses and protective clothing. That makes fighting fires even more dangerous and doesn't do much for recruitment or retention, especially during a pandemic.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PRENGUIN'S "BRANCHES BREAK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.